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The Thomas Crown Affair

Nice and clever

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by John McTiernan

Written by Leslie Dixon and Kurt Wimmer, story by Alan R. Trustman

With Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo, Dennis Leary

I have missed one thing about movies lately, and I didn’t even realize that I have been missing it -- until The Thomas Crown Affair reminded me. One thing is unusual about this film, to an almost shocking extent: it’s a nice movie.

I’m using this adjective in both senses: Affair is certainly nice, a better-than-average product of the Hollywood machine, with charismatic stars, lush scenery, and solid production design. It’s also a truly nice movie -- devoid of postmodern irony and sarcasm, as well as any kind of violence. This last is certainly remarkable, since the director here is John McTiernan, who helmed such decidedly non-nice films like Die Hard and The Hunt for the Red October. Here, he operates in a much gentler mode, a cross between a star vehicle and an old-fashioned heist movie, and the film is much more interested in careful twists of clockwork-precise plot, as well as the emotional underpinnings of the story. Mostly, The Thomas Crown Affair is about the mating of two emotional porcupines.

These two porcupines are the zillionaire Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan), whose hobby is stealing extremely expensive paintings just for fun, and insurance investigator Catherine Banning (Rene Russo), out to trap Crown. The setup sounds exactly like the one for Entrapment, but the similarities end here: while Entrapment was solely about its plot twists, Affair is simultaneously lighter and more affecting.

The story has a traditional three-act structure, and out of these, the first and the third acts are excellent. Each one is a heist, an insanely complicated break-in, carefully thought-out and meticulously executed -- both by Crown and by the filmmakers. The latter, by the way, earn bonus points by completely jettisoning any kind of exposition from these sequences: we see the things as they are happening, and it’s up to us to imagine all the elaborate planning which Crown went through. As a reward, there’s room for the movie to breathe and take its time. The finale takes a step or two further, taking as much inspiration from old heist movies as it does from Monet, Magritte, and Escher. It also manages to make an effortless point about conformism and individuality.

The middle act is about an hour long, and I wished I could get my hands on it in the editing room. It would be easy to cut this middle hour to about, oh, twenty minutes or so, and make the movie better. While it’s clear that this section is trying to build a believable relationship between Crown and Banning, it goes largely nowhere, and does it painfully slowly. Entire sequences (like the glider flight) and even entire major characters (Dennis Leary’s detective McCann) can be cut completely. The dance scene, in particular, is edited in such horrendous manner, it feels like total waste of celluloid; thankfully, this scene is brief. I won’t even touch the annoying product placements.

There are accidental pleasures even here, all of them related to Rene Russo. While Brosnan has perfect looks for someone like Crown, the actor remains psychologically remote even when his character is supposed to open up. Russo, on the other hand, smoothly moves her character from icy to vulnerable. Even when the film objectifies her as a sex symbol, it feels fresh: both actors are in their mid-forties, and it’s nice to see this, especially after Entrapment, with Sean Connery being more than twice as old as Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Ultimately, The Thomas Crown Affair works, despite all the glaring problems in its midsection, because it is nice, clever, and sweet -- attributes that are often underappreciated.